Six years ago, a neighbor slapped five crisp $20 bills in Ral Lopshire’s hand, dropped her off at the airport, and put her on a plane to San Francisco.
It was supposed to be a lunch date. It was not.
Rather, it was an meticulously planned escape orchestrated by Lopshire’s brother to extract her from an abusive relationship, extract her from the state of Arizona, and send her west to San Francisco — the city where she’d always wanted to be.
“When I arrived in San Francisco, I felt like I had gained everything, even though I was here with $100 and nowhere to go,” she says. “And no food either. But I still felt like I had gained something so much more.”
She’s gone now. Like so many others, Lopshire is now a former San Franciscan.
There is a narrative that the pandemic will drive the obnoxious, wealthy arrivistes out of this city — a better tomorrow that looks, oddly, like yesterday.
Well, maybe. The search for a silver lining in these times is understandable. But Covid is not the fire that purifies. Lots of people have been burned.
Certainly, there are some loudmouth VCs decamping for Miami (a city with all the government corruption and ineptitude of San Francisco, with the added bonuses of insane weather, flying cockroaches, a looming ecological catastrophe and loafers with no socks). Certainly there are some tobacco company bossmen fleeing San Francisco, in the name of security, for Dallas (a city with a violent crime rate that far exceeds San Francisco’s).
Yet despite what you may have read or seen on TV, California’s out-migration has not increased significantly. But San Francisco’s has. And it’s certainly not all entitled tech bros, acting with agency.
You read trend stories about indignant captains of industry leaving these parts for out-of-state, even though there’s no trend here to speak of. You didn’t read about Lopshire, though — a 29-year-old artist and musician who lost her service-industry job in a cosmetics store, lost her housing, and was economically banished from this city.
Maybe we’ve become inured to that story because it’s so commonplace. This was happening to retail workers and housecleaners and cooks and servers and drivers every day, well before the pandemic. And, now that the pandemic is upon us, it’s hard to imagine that only the well-off and well-placed will leave — and choose to leave. It’s hard to imagine that the only people departing San Francisco are affluent and have all the options.
And it’s hard to imagine that, in the coming years, the more fortunate newcomers who move here won’t be greatly advantaged over the less fortunate; San Francisco’s rents have plummeted but they’re still the nation’s highest.
A news outlet must decide whose stories it wishes to tell.
March 17 marks the one-year anniversary of the multi-county health order that changed life in this and so many cities as we know it. Mission Local has covered it from the beginning and the bottom up and, in the coming days and weeks, you’ll be reading stories where we check back in on the people and businesses we introduced you to over the past 12 painful months.
We’ll start today by meeting not the privileged who choose to leave San Francisco because it no longer suits them, but people who have experienced real hardships — and fought, successfully or not, to stay.
We’ll start with stories of real individuals. Not bogus trend stories.
We’ll start with Ral Lopshire.
There’s “homeless,” Lopshire explains, and there’s “homeless homeless.”
One day after Thanksgiving, during the height of the pandemic, all the money was gone. There were no more cheap motels or sleeping in a car or nights on the couch of a friend or kindly Craigslist stranger. She was homeless homeless.
It was sleepless nights sitting up against a building on the cold pavement — “and nobody understands how cold it really does get at like 3 a.m.” — and hungry days of lifting a loaf of bread from the store, a la Jean Valjean.
Lopshire lost her job in the cosmetics store in March. She was out of money by May. In November, she left her apartment in the Sunset near McCoppin Square; she claims her roommates had a cavalier attitude toward socializing and partying during the pandemic.
In a series of unfortunate events, Lopshire says she moved half of her belongings to a new place inhabited by a pair of middle-aged women — she planned to pay the rent with unemployment money — then returned to the Sunset to find new locks on the doors. Attempts to retrieve her property, she says, resulted in an ex-roommate’s boyfriend threatening her off the premises with a knife.
This story, she says, unsettled her new roommates. They aborted the nascent living arrangement and Lopshire now found herself out on the streets with half her possessions at one former home and half at another.
After sleeping rough in nicer parts of town — the Castro, Nob Hill — she eventually found her way to a women’s homeless shelter. It was a poignant moment. She had stayed in this shelter during her early days in San Francisco. When she found housing and work, she returned here as a volunteer. And now she was back, sleeping on a mat on the floor during a 10-day quarantine period.
She spent Christmas in the shelter. It was cold. It was rainy. She wore a mask 24 hours a day, and even in her sleep; the only time it was taken off was to eat or shower.
The staff did what it could to cheer up the few women spaced out in the building on Christmas Day: “They made it really nice. They made a nice dinner. But I just thought, ‘I never want to do this again.’”
That remains to be seen. But after so much went wrong in 2020, the present year has started well. Staffers at the West Side Tenants Association established a GoFundMe for Lopshire. It didn’t raise $55,492, like the guy who wanted 10 bucks for potato salad, but the $670 was a life-changer. She found a room for $580 in West Oakland. She moved in January.
The ins, outs, and what-have-yous of Lopshire’s story aren’t typical — but a 29-year-old San Franciscan being priced out of the city and moving to Oakland most certainly is: This was commonplace before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and all but certainly after it. Your humble narrator’s parents, aged 29, decamped from San Francisco to Oakland in search of more affordable housing — in 1976.
Among San Franciscans filing a change of address form with the post office between March and November of last year, a plurality ended up in Alameda County.
Lopshire misses San Francisco. She still doesn’t know her way around Oakland. But, truth be told, there are times when it’s not so bad to get lost and find something new. She’s interviewing for jobs again. She’s taking junior college classes. “Things,” she says, “are falling into place.”
But in a different place.
Gentrification, like the bite of a komodo dragon, can take years to take its toll.
It may take a great while to fully gauge the effects of the pandemic on San Francisco’s demographics, after entire industries employing working-class people either collapsed or went dormant. While pandemic-related tenant protections in this city are strong, lots of tenants, when unable to pay the rent, simply leave.
So, Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy — “gradually, then suddenly” — works regarding gentrification, too. Displacement often takes time. There’s no shortage of malfeasant landlords and callous public housing agencies. But a lot of it simply involves people leaving, through the years: People leave for work reasons and for family reasons — the sorts of conditions a recession and pandemic accelerate and exacerbate. San Francisco is a hell of a town, but not everyone wants to make living here the end-all and be-all of their existence, especially if work is scarce, money is scarce, and opportunities arise elsewhere.
All of this is happening here. Gradually, then suddenly.
Reina Tello has experience with both bankruptcy and gentrification. She has personally filed for bankruptcy six times. It was her father’s wish to die in his own home in Bayview. And, for years, the family fought off the bank to keep him there.
In 2018, Jesse Tello died. Not long thereafter, more than two dozen sheriff’s deputies showed up to evict the women and children he left behind.
Tello, her mother, her brother, her sister, and her two grade-school-aged children moved into one room in a cousin’s house. They spread a pair of foam mattress-toppers on the floor and slept in a pile.
At times, Tello, now 38, didn’t even come home. She worked as a community organizer at Poder and at a grocery store and, rather than wake everyone up, she simply slept in her car in a Safeway parking lot. In the morning she’d start the car, pick up her daughters, take them to school, go to her jobs, and do it all again.
Why do this? Why sacrifice so much to stay in a city that makes itself so hard to stay in?
“You know,” Tello says with a laugh, “you are not the first person to ask me that. And my answer has changed through the years. First, I was angry. I have every right to be here. Just like everybody has every right to be here. But now — have you ever gone on a vacation but found yourself homesick? You enjoy where you’re at, but it doesn’t fulfill you like when you’re at home? San Francisco is that for me. It’s a place where I can be myself.”
San Francisco, however, is an exhausting place to call home. Even if you don’t have six bankruptcies on your record. As Tello does. And yet, by some alchemy, her family landed a rental home in Visitacion Valley in January. Tello, her mother, her brother, and her daughters have a home in San Francisco. The rent is $3,200 a month. Only Tello and her mother are working right now, and the house eats up most of their money.
Almost as soon as they moved in, the entire family tested positive for Covid. While she was in isolation, Tello’s truck was impounded. And, in recent days, she was shocked to find that her hair is falling out in clumps — which may be a lingering symptom of the disease, and may be a result of stress, or may be all of the above. It’s hard to say.
And yet, Tello remains. The statistics in the coming years do not necessarily augur well for hard-working city natives such as her. But Tello is not a statistic. She’s a San Franciscan.
And this is the case despite the hardships mounting. Gradually, then suddenly.
“I hope and I pray every single day that this is just a hard spot,” she says, speaking about her family — but, when you think about it, so many San Francisco families.
“And we’re going to recover from this.”
Stories recounting our pandemic year will appear in Mission Local throughout March.